Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chapter 50: In Which I Discuss Michael

Like most people on this planet, I love Michael Jackson music. Unlike most people, I am not only familiar with his latter period, but love much of it. Michael's adult career can be evenly split in half. There's Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad. On the other side, there's HIStory, Blood on the Dancefloor and Invincible. The amazing Dangerous serves as the exact middle between them. These albums might as well have been made by a completely different artist. The first three, the ones the casual fans will throw on at a college party, are extremely polished. Each song is crafted for maximum marketability, with heavy production and, lyrically, no trace of autobiography. When Michael sings "She's Out of My Life," he absolutely kills it, but I can tell he's singing about some stuff he has no personal background in. Everything is devoted to making enjoyable pop music that the whole world can listen to, by an artist whose only goal is the music itself. Not a personal demon in sight.

Dangerous marks the change. His pop sensibilities are stronger than ever. He was smart enough to jump full on the New Jack Swing bandwagon, a hybrid type of music that perfectly complimented his style and brought him swingin' into the 90s. He incorporated hard rock in there too, making legendary songs like "Heal the World," "Jam," "Black or White" and "Remember the Time." Also, no mention of politics, just general calls for world peace and an end to racism. Yet there's that sinister element. The femme fatale in "Dangerous." The paranoia in "Who is It."  Whatever kind of relationship he's singing about in "Give In To Me," it's not a healthy one. You may just give in to him (and it would be hard not to), but there will be consequences.

Now, Michael went into dark territory before, with a few songs on Bad. What separates them from his later work is their impersonal nature. "Dirty Diana" and "Smooth Criminal" are Michael as storyteller. He's telling stories about golddigging and assault the same way he told stories about drive-in movies and avoiding gang violence. It's all distanced from Michael as a person.

Then you get to the last three albums.

NIN-style electronic noise, screeching guitars, crying, enraged hatred at injustice, at politicians, at environmental devastation, diss records aimed at prosecutors and tabloids, greed, loneliness, hundred-foot proto-fascist-looking statues of himself, betrayal, jealousy, child murder, rainforests levelled, baby seals decapitated, hissing, growling, beatboxing, drug addiction, pain pain pain. And it's personal as fuck. When he sings "They don't really care about us," he's aiming not just at politicos and killer cops, but anyone who ever struck out at him. When he says "Are you the ghost of jealousy?" he's no longer just using cutesy horror movie imagery. "He's doing morphine!" Doesn't get more forward than that. His political messages are explicit, as are his targets. When he starts cursing the name of the guy who tried to prosecute him for child molestation, it's pretty clear that Michael's got a brand-new bag.

And that's the crux of this music. For a guy who became the standard bearer for innocuous pop, his later period is pure Id. I would challenge anyone to listen to those songs and say Michael didn't take the music to some dark places. More than most mainstream singers do. Even his collaborative work is enraged. What does he do when he finally gets together with Janet? He makes her scream with him. He squeezed the Beatles' "Come Together" for every drop of menace it has.

As when anybody goes to that dark place, the result is not always enjoyable. I don't get much enjoyment from those goopy Broadway-style ballads he recorded. As songs, they're half-cooked and sloppy. But I feel the passion. "Little Susie" and that what-the-fuck interlude about demorol in the middle of "Morphine" are scary songs. "Speechless" is also scary, simply for how naked the emotion is. He's putting it all out there, and doesn't care whether the music is solid. I'm not one of those delusional fans who, after having to justify their fandom for fifteen miserable years, simply chose to make excuses for everything he did. Michael underwent a massive mental breakdown during that period. It's all there in the music. No veils. When listening to Invincible, I'm taken aback by Top 40 songs like "You Rock My World." They seem out of place. Michael's niche was confessional, no-holds-barred pop music. It's interesting to note that, as he got older, he got into heavy metal, with Slash accompanying him on several of his scream sessions. It's like I said: metal is music without metaphor. There's something that magnetizes metal instrumentation to lyrical honesty. Even when I don't like his later period songs, I appreciate that he made them at all. I wish they could have been some kind of therapy for him, but his story went the way it went.

Very soon, like, tomorrow, I'm going to give a full rundown of my upcoming TOUR! It's going to be the shit. For real. Until then, here's some favorites.






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